What is a plant-based diet?
What are the benefits of eating a plant-based diet, and how can you make sure it's healthy and balanced? Our nutritionist shares her top tips...
A plant-based diet is any diet that focuses around foods derived from plant sources. This can include fruit, vegetables, grains, pulses, legumes, nuts and meat substitutes such as soy products.
People often have different interpretations of what ‘plant-based’ eating looks like. Some people still include small amounts of animal products such as meat and fish, while focusing mainly on vegetarian foods – this is referred to as a semi-vegetarian or flexitarian diet. Plans that cut out meat but still include fish are referred to as pescatarian diets. People who don’t eat meat or fish but still include dairy and eggs are referred to as vegetarian, while those who cut out any animal derived products, including dairy, eggs, honey and gelatin are referred to as vegan.
People following plant-based diets and consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and pulses are likely to find it easier to meet their five-a-day target. Due to this, they are also likely to have good intakes of fibre and the vitamins and minerals that are present in fruit and vegetables, including folate, vitamin C and potassium, all of which are important for good health.
However, it is worth noting that ‘plant-based’ does not automatically mean 'healthy', particularly when it comes to processed and packaged foods. Technically, products such as refined sugar, white flour and certain vegetable fats can all be labelled ‘plant-based’ as they are vegetarian, but this does not mean that they should make up the bulk of a healthy diet.
We asked nutritionist Kerry Torrens for her view…
Are plant-based diets healthy?
Plant-based diets including vegan diets can be healthy, as long as they are balanced and nutritionally adequate. When followed consistently, a well-balanced, plant-based diet that focuses on wholegrains, fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds may provide health benefits. These include a lower body mass index (BMI), lower cholesterol levels and a reduced incidence of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even protection from some cancers including prostate and breast cancer.
Like any diet, the health benefits are dependent on the quality and nutritional adequacy of the diet – this means replacing refined, typically ‘white’ carbohydrates with wholegrains, avoiding sugary, sweetened drinks and confectionery and focusing on good quality plant-based protein and fats, such as those found in nuts and seeds.
How can those following plant-based diets ensure they’re getting all the nutrients they need?
When following a plant-based diet there are some key nutrients that you should focus on. These include protein, vitamin B12, the vitamins and minerals needed for bone health including calcium and vitamin D as well as the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Certain nutrients are not found very easily in plant foods, including vitamin D and B12 as well as omega-3 fatty acids. These may need to be sourced from fortified foods such as fortified plant milks, spreads and cereals. If you are considering taking a supplement to support your nutritional intake, discuss this with your GP or doctor first.
What are your top tips to follow a balanced, plant-based diet?
Those following a plant-based diet may need to plan their meals a little more carefully. Arming yourself with some dietary information can make all the difference. You might find it useful to read our guides on vegetarian sources of protein, where you can obtain vitamin B12 as well as the best plant sources of omega-3.
If you are significantly changing your diet, it may be useful to start slowly – perhaps introducing two or three plant-based meals, or days, a week. This allows your body to adapt to new foods and to the changes in the proportion of certain nutrients, such as fibre. It also allows you to experiment with new foods and build up some storecupboard staples over a period of time.
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This article was published on 25th July 2018 by nutritional therapist Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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